How hard should it be to give up alcohol?
I’ve never been a huge drinker. But I love a drink. God, how I love a drink, and I’m now realising just how much I also need it. I’m one of the fifteen thousand Australians suffering through Dry July, a month where volunteers are sponsored to give up the grog.
I’m not doing it just to raise money for cancer treatment but also to discover if I can survive without the elixir of alcohol. Usually, I try not to drink from Monday to Thursday but find a glass of red goes well with Q and A on a Monday, feel I may as well finish the bottle on a Tuesday, reason that a risotto tastes better with Riesling on a Wednesday and tell myself Thursday is practically Friday after all. Then that drink at the end of a week of work tastes like weekend.
My bloke also wanted to challenge himself. The last time he’d gone without grog for a month was while reporting in Afghanistan under the Taliban. I figured I’d find it easier; after all, I’d abstained for most of two pregnancies. How hard could it be?
On the second day, I dropped in on a neighbour who had vowed to join me in abstinence. There was a glass of wine on her kitchen bench. I looked at it with horror and longing as she spluttered “Mate, I’m just having one”
“Did you have one yesterday?” I cried with the whinge of a wowser
“Well just one. I’m doing dry August, really I am”
My neighbour made me confront how much my own use of alcohol has changed. When I was a teenager I drank to get drunk and vomit. In my twenties it was a party drug. In my thirties, more a dinner party accompaniment. Now, I’ve realised I’m dependent in a very different way. I’d always joked about the ‘cup of tea, Bex and a good lie down’ life of a Stepford wife but I’m beginning to realise wine is my Bex. At the end of day, the ‘mothers little helper’ becomes a friend, a port in a storm, a muscle relaxant and a boost before bedtime reading. In a life that’s defined by a lot of responsibility and order, it’s a taste of bottled freedom.
I’m betting the three blokes who came up with Dry July didn’t stay home during the winter school holidays. After a few days of inclement weather and bored children, I found myself pining for a drink. When my son found a new squeaky toy he just had to press CONSTANTLY, I took the bottle out of the fridge and stroked it like a lover. After driving home as they fought incessantly in the back I salivated at the red light. After washing three dogs that had rolled in cat excrement, I was pulled towards the fridge like a vampire to a warm neck. Every evening, after every long day, I got crankier and crankier.
It hurts me to admit this but I found myself becoming one of those women you hear in the supermarket nagging, harassed and tight faced.
“No, don’t do that. Get off him. Stop it. Now you listen to me, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times just leave heeerr aloannnne!”
I became so grumpy that after reading about the damaging side effects of Xanax in Good Weekend, I thought, “geez I’d like to try that”. I realised those Bex days were about the fact that everyday life can be stressful in its monotony and responsibility. The wine many women use to relax becomes a crutch, a habit, a lifestyle and then an addiction. That’s why nearly every mother I know who took the holidays off or doesn’t work refused to join me in Dry July. One even messaged me - “Couldn’t you just shave your head?”
Australians are starting to increasingly question our alcohol use and so we should. Most of us have at least one family member or close friend with a problem. It costs us dearly in terms of cash, accidents, violence and long-term health problems. I cried into my tap water while watching the parents of Tom Kelly weep over his senseless, cruel death in Kings Cross. While we may never know if alcohol was a factor, there’s no doubt drinking can be an ugly scene. In a decade I’ll worry about my children staggering around at risk of violence, sexual assault or swallowing their own vomit.
Australians may be big drinkers but we are not in the top 15 nations for drinking. According to the World Health Organisation, our use is in the second highest category behind Russia, Eastern Europe and UK. Yet there’s no doubt we love it. It’s a social crutch. A compulsion. A need. A lubricant. A ritual. A cultural festival. It’s the middle class drug of choice.
I went to a wedding on Saturday night and bought a golden ticket that entitled me to toast the couple. The first sip of cold champagne felt like a shot of warm love that tingled all the way to my fingertips and toes. But after another half a glass I found I didn’t actually want any more. I didn’t need it as much as I thought I did.
Some Dry July participants feel more energetic, clear-headed and have lost a few kilos. I don’t feel any different and, because I’ve replaced wine with chocolate, I’ve put on weight.
I’m not into purity. I don’t diet or cleanse or go without too much. For me, too much self-control is boring, extreme and a touch anti social. Life is too short to live in constant denial.
I’ve realised I am addicted to grog. But we’re all addicted to something; my kids to TV and sugar, the dog to his ball, the personal trainer next door to his endless exercise. I’m going to keep going. I know I can make it. Come August I’ll drink less. But if you ask me to give up coffee I will scream.